But the real focus heading into the game was the two highest paid defensive players in league history, LA Rams’ Aaron Donald and Chicago Bears’ Khalil Mack, both drafted in 2014 and eligible to enter free agency at the end of the season.
This summer Donald broke the record when he signed a six-year £106 million – $135m – contract. Less than 24 hours later Khalil Mack signed a six-year £110m – $146m – contract to set a new benchmark. Both these contracts were questioned at the time as the money on offer was similar to that of league-leading quarterbacks and could defensive players ever be worthy of so much money?
The short answer: yes.
Both Mack and Donald have had stellar seasons. Mack, who is in his first year as a Chicago Bear after Oakland Raiders deemed his contract “too much to justify”, has forced six fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown this season.
The linebacker has become an icon in Chicago and brings back memories of the 1985 team which relied heavily on defence in a season where they lost only once. Mack has been a leader in the team, the same way he was in Oakland and it’s easy to see why the fans love him.
On the other side of the ball late on Sunday night was Donald, a player who had questions over his size before he entered the league. The Pittsburgh graduate had, according to experts, weaknesses such as “marginal size” and “can be overwhelmed by bigger blockers”.
Donald has recorded 16.5 sacks – tackles on the quarterback behind the gian line – and four forced fumbles, his most productive year to date. Week in week out you hear the pundits talk about his ability to beat double teams, burst through gaps with his speed and how he has the strength to shrug off blockers.
It’s not just the tackles that have made Donald an MVP candidate, it’s the timing of them. Last week, with the game on the line against Detroit, the defensive end stepped up to beat his blocker and knock the ball out of Matthew Stafford’s hand. The ball was recovered by the Rams, and the game was over, and for a third time this season a Donald sack could be tied directly to a win.
These two players have shown how important it is to have a dominant defensive player to rely on and the salaries these two are being paid has changed the way teams will manage their finances, but if any defensive players are capable of repaying this money its Donald and Mack.
What a weekend for Miami. After hanging in the game with the New England Patriots they pulled off what’s being described as a miracle. A pass caught and offloaded to two separate players, a la rugby, created a touchdown with no time left on the clock for the Dolphins’ fourth win in five against the Patriots. It keeps the Dolphins in the play-off hunt.
Kansas City Chiefs picked up a win over Baltimore but needed overtime to secure their play-off berth. The Chiefs will know they have postseason football but have yet to secure their division after the LA Chargers kept the pressure on by beating Cincinnati and adding spice to next weekend’s divisional match up with the Chiefs. New Orleans bounced back from defeat last week to secure the NFC South title, while the Packers secured their first win without former head coach Mike McCarthy.
The Cowboys beat division rivals Philadelphia Eagles and know that one more win may be enough to secure at least one extra game in the new year. But it’s not over for the Eagles, Redskins or even the Giants in a tightly packed NFC East. The Giants put together their most complete game of the season, destroying Washington 40-16 with Saqoun Barkley having a combined 197 yards and a touchdown.